Published by OZY
Written by Lorena O'Neil


The Independent Women’s Forum wants to bring a conservative approach to feminism, one that keeps women from thinking of themselves as victims who depend on big government.

Unless you’ve been living in a political vacuum, you’ve likely heard Democrats accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women.” Recently, Republicans have started throwing this rhetorical weapon right back at Democrats saying, no, you are the ones waging a war on women.

With single women a key demographic target in the 2014 campaign, conservatives are making a major push to counter the idea that they are anti-woman. That includes running a strong set of female candidates in marquee Senate races. Still, setbacks abound, especially when politicians like Todd Akin — who just recently tried and failed to clarify his “legitimate rape” comments — help perpetuate the narrative, as does the mainstream feminist response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

This is when a conservative women’s group, the Independent Women’s Forum, steps in, creating a much-needed conversation on the right. The non-profit publicizes conservative takes on women’s issues like the wage gap, health insurance and the Paycheck Fairness Act by writing for media outlets, making television appearances and publishing policy papers and quizzes. They aren’t a new organization, but they do consider themselves uniquely positioned to influence women voters based on their record of defining conservative feminism long before the “war on women” came into vogue in D.C.

“When it comes to reaching women, the right is outnumbered, out-researched and outspent,” says IWF’s Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer. She admits the right is “in big trouble with women” because when it comes to political debate about workplace, health care and cultural issues, there is little to no response from conservatives. She refers to this as “an entirely one-sided information environment.”

“The left drives me crazy sometimes on issues of gender, but they take it seriously,” says Schaeffer. “Our side has done so little to truly understand the way women are thinking and how to move women and change their behavior and to introduce new information to them. Our side needs far more investment in communicating with women at national, state and local levels.”

The IWF feels that modern-day feminism is synonymous with big government, and that it too often seeks gender parity at all points in life without acknowledging that men and women are different.

“One of my biggest frustrations with contemporary feminism today is that it has painted women as agency-less,” says Schaeffer, “as victims who are constantly in need of either government protection or who are always the underdog — rather than seeing women are accomplishing more than ever before and outpacing men professionally, financially.”

Schaeffer says she “absolutely” believes in equal opportunity, but “we shouldn’t feel disappointed in [women’s] choices. We’re not having government reports on the shortage of male nurses. We aren’t concerned about that.”

Founded in 1992, the IWF works on educating conservatives about policies women care about. Schaeffer says all too often, conservative candidates “skirt around issues” without clear and actionable responses, out of fear they will sound sexist. The organization doesn’t do candidate training but has started to develop candidate guides on women, and it helps build name recognition for female candidates.

One issue where IWF could lose a lot of women is their opposition to expanded paid maternity leave.

“Nobody wants to hire you if you are going to disappear for months at a time, and you are going to go on and have a baby,” says IWF Managing Director Carrie Lukas. She says managers may be reluctant to hire women of childbearing age for leadership positions. “While the left extols Western Europe’s generous family leave policies, they fail to mention that women there are far less likely to hold private-sector leadership positions than are American women,” writes Lukas in Forbes.

Unsurprisingly, liberal feminists would vehemently disagree with this take on maternity leave, as well as many of IWF’s stances on childcare and the wage gap. The New Republic’s Taylor Malmsheimer criticized a recent forum hosted by the IWF that featured panelists questioning statistics about college sexual assault and asking whether “rape culture” exists. Journalist Jessica Valenti goes so far as to call the IWF “anti-feminist,” describing them as “a group that says the wage gap is a myth and protests against The Vagina Monologues.

“Too often, progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers present a grim picture of America. They perpetuate the myth that society, our schools, and the workplace are inherently unfair to women and girls today. And they suggest the solution is even more government control and greater dependence on the state by women and their families.”

— Excerpt from Lean Together, a collection of essays by female authors, from the IWF this Labor Day

“I’m frequently called anti-woman, which I think is absolutely ridiculous,” says Lukas. “Feminism has become a code word for women as a dependent class and as needing special protections and gifts from the government to survive. Being anti that? I’m ok with that.”

Schaeffer considers herself a feminist. “Do I believe in equality in the law? Absolutely. Where I differ from second and third wave feminists is I don’t want the conversation to revolve around my reproductive tract. I don’t want the conversation to pit the genders against each other. I want the conversation to go back to what women, like men, can accomplish in their lives.”

“I know that there are women and families who face challenges, but I worry deeply about this women as victim message. I worry that it’s become the mainstay in progressive politics and polling shows that it’s working. We want to help people who are in need, we just don’t always believe that government is an efficient and effective way in doing that.”

Can conservative ideals win over the crucial unmarried women demographic? Democrats believe they can appeal to women through a populist economic message, based on polling by Democratic firms. However, the IWF’s sister organization the Independent Women’s Voice conducted experimental research showing how voters can change sides when delivered a competing argument. Voters begin to question their previous understanding of issues and are more likely to seek out further information. The IWF is trying to prepare conservatives to explain their take on women-related issues more regularly, not just in the 14 weeks before an election.

Even if we put the finger-pointing aside on who really is fighting a war on women, there is no denying that the war for women is just getting started. And for now, conservatives are having to learn how to fight while walking uphill.

Additional reporting by Emily Cadei